(Looks Like its) Semantic Web Week

It seems that this is the week that the Ontologists and the Anarcho-Populists are taking to the streets to debate the One True Way to the Next Generation of the Web.

It seems that this is the week that the Ontologists and the Anarcho-Populists are taking to the streets to debate the One True Way to the Next Generation of the Web.

Some of yesterday’s posts and stories on this issue that caught my eye include three that stake out the left, right and middle positions.

The left wing position is represented by a nicely articulated (albeit two year old) post by Clay Shirky that was recently resurrected by Semantic Web critic and Google VP Engineering VP Adam Bosworth. That post was titled Ontology is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags’, and I linked to it yesterday. Shirky takes the position that a Semantic Web is a throwback to archaic efforts to force the world into hierarchical organizational schema that become out of date almost immediately. Not only is this too rigid to work, he thinks, but it misses the point: the world is what we think it is, and we should try and suss the collective consciousness, not insist on forcing that consciousness into neat little categorical boxes.

As Shirky elegantly asks, “Does the world make sense or do we make sense of the world?” If the former is true, then ontology can be a great approach. But if the latter is the case (as it is), then we need a more free-form approach that allows each of us to understand the world in our own way, and be able to share information, despite the differences. It’s a lovely piece of writing. Well worth reading whether you ultimately come out the same way from an architectural point of view or not. The right wing is presented in an interview by SAP Info with Andreas Blumauer, a project manager at the Semantic Web School in Vienna, calledA Beautiful, Networked World? Blumauer takes a more strait-laced approach (both as to style and example), countering the Shirky view with statements like this:

Human beings store knowledge and experience as images and as networks of terms (generic terms and subordinate terms) or associated topics that can then be woven into complex concepts. And human beings remember rules like “dogs eat meat but not fruit.” This rule applies to all dogs and does not need to be stored extra for each breed of dog. Through the creation and externalization of knowledge networks or ontologies that have developed in this manner, a computer “learns” more about the world and the terms that occur in it. It thus limits the search and delivers precise results.

Shirky would point out that by another ontology, coyotes are dogs — and they do eat fruit (as did my *censored*er spaniel, for that matter) proving that working by strict rules is a risky business. Shirky’s own examples included “Dresden is a city in East Germany” — as in, “not any more”.

Finally, the middle of the road is taken by Jeff Pollock, of Cerebra, in a post called It’s not Google; or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Semantic Web He debunks what he regards to be some common myths about the Semantic Web, and ultimately resolves the question by taking people out of the equation entirely. After asking the question whether Google thinks that it can solve all search problems by “clever indexing,” he concludes:

Not me. I don’t worry about it anymore. Google can keep on improving on the ways that people find data. Meanwhile, I will continue to use Semantic Web technology to help automate how machines query data.

If you haven’t tackled the Semantic Web yet, these three pieces make for a nice quick entry not only to the concept and mechanism, but to the controversy as well.